Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx Through the Lens of B.R. Ambedkar
Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx, the two great philosophers of all time, as referred to by many people and prominent scholars, had both conflicting as well as mutual narratives and ideologies that have greatly shaped world politics. This article will majorly focus on the similarities and dissimilarities between the principles of Marxism and Gandhism, their perspectives on capitalism, industrialisation, and ideologies pertaining to their spiritual and material beliefs, their philosophical strongholds and the society they dreamt of, majorly being studied from the policies and programmes initiated by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, another great visionary.
Perspectives on Capitalism
Both Marx and Gandhi were against capitalism. While Marx initiated the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist society, Gandhi took to non-violent measures. However different their measures were, they shared a similar objective. Both Marx and Gandhi believed in social ownership and a socialist mode of production. Being inspired by John Ruskin’s book “Unto This Last”, Gandhi introduced the concept of “Sarvodaya” to promote the welfare of all instead of favouring one particular class or section of the society. Similarly, Marx believed that the forerunner of the social form of communism is socialism.
Marx proposed the idea of a communist society whereby the proletariat or the working class would snatch the power away from the bourgeoisie or rich landowner and they would work together for the upliftment of the society and class differences would vanish away. In other words, a classless society. He believed in the idea of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and the collective ownership of commercial establishments, transports and major industries and collective sharing of the profits. Gandhi’s idea of Sarvodaya society was built upon the rock basis of economic equality. However, unlike Marx, he did not believe in coercion or application of force; rather, people and rich landowners would voluntarily come forward to offer or share the surplus land with the needy. This was supposed to be facilitated under the Bhoodan (land offering) programme. The Sarvodaya society would also provide equality and freedom to all its members. There wouldn’t be any class or caste difference and neither injustice nor exploitation.
Both Marx and Gandhi dreamt of an ideal and a practically impossible society. Marx’s proposition of snatching the power away from the bourgeoisie by the proletariats would inevitably give rise to a new class (the middle-class population) that would further engage in the vicious cycle of exploitation, that is, the oppressed would and might become the oppressor. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya society has been referred to as a “utopian” concept by many prominent scholars. With growing privatisation and focus on individualism, people would not engage in the voluntary sharing of surplus capital that they possessed. Moreover, both Marx’s and Gandhi’s conceptual societies haven’t existed anywhere at any point in time.
Conflict and Functionalism
Karl Marx was a conflict theorist. He believed that society was characterised by two groups or classes, that is, the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots’, the oppressor and the oppressed and the exploiter and the exploited. According to him, the labourers were coerced or forced to work for the rich landowners who exploited them. He believed that violence was the midwife of history. He considered that social change was caused by tensions between competing or contrasting interests in society.
Gandhi, on the other hand, proposed the treatment of all forms of work and all types of employees and workers as equal and important. He believed that the life of a sweeper, a tiller, or a sewage cleaner was worth living. In other words, Gandhi glorified and justified the caste-based division of labour as they contributed to the smooth functioning of society. Functionalists like Durkheim shared similar thoughts on the caste-based division of labour stimulated by the rise of capitalism backed by protestant ethics in Europe.
Perspectives on Industrialisation
Alienation became a principal term in the writings of Marx. Alienation, according to Marx, was a prominent feature of industrialised society that made the workers “impoverished things” whereby they were alienated from the object that they produced, from the process of production, from themselves and their fellowmen. He believed that the more wealth a worker produces, the poorer they become. For instance, a farmer who produces the bulk of food that we consume, themselves might die of hunger. This very idea was borrowed by Gandhi (supposedly) when he introduced ‘Gram Swaraj’ or village self-dependence. Gandhi believed that the poor villagers are exploited by the rich industrialists in the cities who “suck their blood”. He considered India as a land of “village republics” which remained uncontaminated by the western ethos in the cities and that villages represented the face of real India. He wanted to maintain the sanctity of the villages.
However, this very idea also happened to be contrasting to or opposite of Marx’s perception of villages. This is where Dr. BR Amedkar’s proposition comes into play. Ambedkar, who had spent his childhood growing up in the village as a Dalit, had a different notion; he considered a village as nothing “but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism”. While Gandhi’s idea of an ideal village meant housing for all the people, proper sanitation and hygiene and a shift towards traditional cottage industries where people would spin charkhas, grow their crops, have their wells and gardens and the village would have weekly gatherings, caste would have no role to play and everyone would be allowed access to temples, educational institutions and wells, Ambedkar blatantly opposed the idea of an ideal village and focused on the developmental aspects of urbanisation. Karl Marx was against the exploitation of workers which was a factored consequence of industrialisation, but he was not against industrialisation. He shared a similar perception of the Indian villages as that of Ambedkar’s.
Spiritualism and Materialism
Gandhi was a spiritualist. He worshipped Lord Ram. Gandhi’s idea of Gramraj or Gram Swaraj was influenced by the idealism of Ramraj (the rule of Lord Ram, a Hindu mythological figure). He viewed religion as a reformist measure. Marx, on the other hand, considered religion as “the opium of the masses”. He viewed religion as a social evil that needed to be done away with. To him, religion prevented people from claiming their rights and climbing higher up the social ladder as they accepted their situation to be preordained and as their ultimate fate. They were unable to rebel against capitalism because of the fear instilled in them by religion. Marx was a materialist, unlike Gandhi. Marx’s historical materialism and definition of the class focused on the importance of economic factors.
Read: Gandhi and Ambedkar: ideologies
While Gandhi was against the caste-based reservation or provision of separate electorate for the historically marginalised communities on the pretext that it would further augment the issues related to caste, Ambedkar argued that reclaiming the caste identity was necessary to annihilate the caste system in India. He was sharply criticised by the followers of Gandhi, as they, too, were against the promotion of positive discrimination in favour of the Dalits and other historically oppressed communities. Just like Ambedkar, Marx wanted the workers of the world to unite in rage against the bourgeoisie and overthrow the capitalist system. He believed that a strong sense of identity and solidarity need to prevail among the working-class to rebel against the existing structure.
To conclude, I’d state that although Marx and Gandhi envisioned a socialist society free of inequality and injustice, they had very different ideas, measures and principles. Nevertheless, both are respected and viewed as great social thinkers and philosophers of all times and have greatly shaped the political systems of the contemporary world.
- Garg, B. S. (2019). Village First: Community Empowerment on Health & Development Based on Gandhian Approach – An Experience of Working in few Villages of Wardha District, Maharashtra. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 149(1), pp. 63-67. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6515742/#__ffn_sectitle
- Jodhka, S. S. (2001). Nation and Village: Images of Rural India in Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 3343-3353.
- Judge, P.S. The 13th Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, organised by Dr. Ambedkar Chair Centre for the Study of Social Systems School of Social Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University, 15th January, 2016.
- Nath, S. (2016). Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Indian village: A study in contrasting perceptions. International Journal of Applied Research, 2(6), pp. 361-364.
- Rao, C.N.S. (2009). Karl Marx and His Thoughts. In C.N. Shankar Rao’s Sociology: Principles of Sociology with an Introduction to Social Thought. New Delhi: S. Chand Publications. (18th Ed, pp. 724-745).
- Rao, C.N.S. (2014). Political System in India. In C.N. Shankar Rao’s Sociology of Indian Society. New Delhi: S. Chand Publications. (8th Ed, pp. 573-595).
- Sampathkumar, M. (2015). Comparative Study B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. Historical Research Letter, 23, pp. 05-11.